Talking to My Dad About Unions, Newspapers, and Birds
A Discourse Blog dad and retired columnist talks to us about the newspaper business and the evolving labor movement—and delivers some hardcore bird drama.
If you’ve been reading Discourse Blog for any stretch of time, you’ve probably read a passing mention of my dad, John Schneider. I’ve mentioned him, Jack has mentioned him, and we’re doing it again today. He’s now settled into retirement life, but before that, my dad was a lifelong newspaperman and a columnist for the Lansing State Journal for decades. He’s even in the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. Alas, he and my mom (also a journalist) cursed me with this career path. I forgive them, but only because they explicitly told me many times over not to get into journalism.
Anyway, about a month ago, a casual check-in call with my pop spiraled into a 90-minute conversation about the dissolution of his paper’s union many years ago, and the resurgence in unions now. His words stuck with me, so I asked him to say them over again so you could read them too. I won’t expound too much, but it gave me a lot to think about in terms of where we’ve been before, where we’re at now, and what might come next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Before we start, do you have any requests for how you want to be identified?
It's up to you. Just don't call me a scam.
Okay. Did you say a scam or a scab?
Don't call me a scab. You know what a scab is, don’t you?
Yes, I do. I just couldn't tell if you said “scam” or “scab.”
Oh, feel free to call me a scam.
Okay, well speaking of scabs, let’s talk about journalism. Digital media unions are relatively new, but you told me that back when you started working for the Lansing State Journal [in the ‘70s], it was already unionized, right?
Yeah, and even before that, I had been at the [Detroit] Free Press, I'd worked as a copy boy and that was a closed shop union. You couldn't work if you didn’t join the union.
Do you remember what the general opinion was about that?
Everybody loved it. I mean, you know, there were some anti-union people, but they just didn't take the job. It was such a beneficial thing. We were making good money, we were treated well, we got paid overtime, and our shifts were regular.
Do you remember what you personally thought about unions back then? Was it just a normal thing to you?
Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, growing up in a blue-collar family, my dad was pretty active in the postal employee union and my uncles were all UAW [United Auto Workers] people. I was kind of surprised as I grew up to learn that some people were against them. Because it was such a part of our growing up and they were seen as a good thing for the average blue-collar working person. So we were all for it.
Yeah, I think it’s weird for me now, growing up when I did, to know that they used to be far more common. And it continues to surprise me that anyone but employers would be opposed to them.
It kind of goes against the grain of the American idea of the rugged individualist, I guess. I did know people who said, “Unions protect incompetent, lazy people who just want to draw a paycheck and not do any work.” And sure, I knew a couple of people like that, who bragged about finding a quiet corner somewhere in the factory and sleeping for three hours on their shift or whatever.
Sounds pretty nice to be honest. I think it’s interesting too, as unions are coming back, to recognize how much of that trend is tied up in our broader feelings about work. Like whether or not you think your job is who you are, and how much loyalty you have to the idea of a job in general.
Yeah, that's true. I think it’s particularly tricky with a certain kind of professional who doesn’t think they need any protection. Who wants to thrive on their own and show what they can do and they don't wanna be dragged down by collective bargaining. And that's why a closed shop is such a great idea because you don't have to worry about somebody who's not paying dues, but is getting the same benefits you are. And I know that management exploits that idea of, you know, “Look, we're paying these non-union people more than you. We're giving them this and we’re giving them that.” At the [Lansing] State Journal, when they first offered a 401(k), it seemed like the golden goose. They were just becoming common and it was like free money. It was really attractive. And management came in and said, “We're offering 401(k)s, but only to non-union employees.”
They presented it like that?
Yes, absolutely. They stated that.
It’s wild to me that that's even legal. It’s so shitty.
Yeah, of course it is. And, and they knew exactly what they were doing because some of the borderline union members said, “Boy, I sure would like that 401(k). I want that free money.” People had inflated expectations of what 401(k)s would do. It just seemed like such a great deal, but anyway, that was the beginning of the end of the union. Or, let me put it this way. It wasn't the beginning, it was the nail in the coffin of the Lansing Newspaper Guild.
Do you remember what year the unit began and ended?
Well, I started in ‘77 and the union was going strong, though it might have been past its heyday. It was decertified in 1997 and it was a very narrow vote. There were about 60 employees and the vote was 32 to 29 or something like that.
How would you characterize what happened in those 20 years? You said 401(k)s might have been the nail in the coffin, but what else happened?
Well, when I got there, there was still a sort of amicable relationship between the Guild and management. Negotiations were done strictly locally—a few Guild members would sit down with the editor, maybe the publisher, and the HR person. And I'm not saying that we were holding hands or anything, it was almost like a charade. We would bicker a little bit and we would walk away with our 3% or whatever, and that would be about it. But then Gannett took over around the time I arrived. Initially, they said they were going to let all the local properties function just as they had been, no editorial interference whatsoever. Nobody ever believed that, but they said that. And no interference with union contracts. We knew that wasn't going to last. Then one year they brought in a Gannett negotiator, and if you could imagine a management thug, that’s what he was. And so then we thought, what are we gonna do? And so the national guild sent a negotiator, but he was no match for this management guy. The company had all the cards. We had nothing at that point. We had already bargained away the right to strike, which was huge. And at that point, they refused to settle. And these negotiations would sometimes go out for weeks and months. And they just wore everybody down. People were going months without raises and eventually, they just caved in.
Do you remember whether there was a lot of angst within the newsroom? Like what was happening between people in the unit during all this?
At that point, I think people were starting to think, “We're never gonna gain anything. Why don't we save our dues and get the 401(k) and acknowledge reality. They have all the weapons, we have none.” It got to a point where every year, all we could do was try to avoid losing as much as we could. We never gained anything. It was a matter of trying to hold the line. I remember in one case during negotiations, they were hiring more and more sports stringers. People who got no benefits and were paid a pittance per game. The company was taking advantage of Michigan State University students who were in journalism and wanted to get some clips, and so they would work for almost nothing just to get the bylines in the paper. And the stringers were pissed off that the union was trying to eliminate stringers because we wanted to hire full-time people. At one point, they agreed to hire a full-time person in exchange for us allowing them to have a certain number of stringers. We got one full-time job created and they had a few stringers, so everybody was happy about that. That's one of the few victories I can recall.
And that exact thing is still happening today with freelance and contract workers. It seems like there are fewer and fewer staff positions in more contract and freelance jobs.
And there's no mystery why that is. It’s a great deal for the company.
And you were on your bargaining committee?
Yes, and I was vice president for a while too. I always gave the credit to the officers because they were seen as a thorn in the side of the management. And in several ways, I think they paid for that. I always got the impression that if you were part of the Guild, unless you had a lot of cred with the readers, you got roughed up a little bit.
Were you pretty disheartened when the unit disbanded?
Oh yeah. I knew what was coming. I knew that people didn't see the whole picture. Yeah, they might get the 401(k), but they're gonna pay for it in other ways, and that's exactly what happened. The staff started shrinking. Part of what we had with the contract was a certain number of positions in the newsroom, and we ensured that those positions remained. We couldn't say who they hired and who they fired, but when somebody left we would say, “That position has to be filled.” That's the way it worked until Gannett took over and started turning the screws.
Looking back, do you feel like there's anything you would've or could've done differently?
No. One of my jobs was trying to recruit people. You know, a new person would come and I would talk to them, and say, “We have a Guild here and we’d sure appreciate your membership and here's why. And here's why it benefits you to be part of it,” and all that. And some people would join, and then other people would just say, “I'll get the same benefits whether I pay the dues or not. So why, why should I pay dues?” And, you know, for somebody who’s asking that question, it’s not easy to explain it. And it was happening more and more often. And of course, the more people who did that, the more people who felt emboldened to do the same thing.
“There's no democracy without a middle class. And there's no middle class without unions. What’s more democratic than a union? There’s no democracy without unions.”
It’s so tough. If someone's not already inclined to care about the collective, it's pretty tough to make them care about the collective.
It absolutely is. And especially when you have people who are thinking of it as a white-collar job and don't want to identify with the grease monkeys, the hard work. They're like, “What does that have to do with me? Those are blue-collar people. They never went to college. Why should I be lumped in with them?” There was that attitude.
Interesting. So it was a bad association, that unions were working class?
Right. Unions were for hourly wage jobs where you hated it and you lived for the weekends. And, you know, journalism was like a calling for some people. So they didn't think they needed protection. They felt they could do it on their own. That's just the way it was.
You were telling me before that one of your bargaining tactics was posting everyone's salaries on the bulletin board in the newsroom.
Yes, they didn't like it at all, but they couldn't stop us.
Do you remember what led to the decision to do that?
Yeah, we saw some inequities in what people were being paid and, you know, even when there was a Guild, you could still go in and ask for a raise for yourself. So we thought it would be a good idea for everybody to know what everybody else was making, so if there were any obvious problems we could address them. Management hated it. And everybody was curious, and a lot of it was probably prurient curiosity, but when you're a collective, then you should know that, right?
Yeah. Salary sharing is so fascinating to me because people really get so uncomfortable about it, but it’s a great example of exactly why organizing is both good and hard. Sharing salaries is such an effective way to bring people together, but people really get weird about disclosing what they're making. Money is tricky.
Oh yeah, it's one of those taboos. People say, “It’s nobody’s business,” but for what?
You had told me that you also did informational picketing, because you couldn’t strike, right?
Yes. There were a couple times when the contract negotiation was going on so long and the company wasn't showing any good faith. And we knew we couldn't strike, but we wanted to do something. To let people know what was happening. We felt we were being treated unfairly, as every union does. So we did these informational pickets. And we had signs, and we had leaflets printed and we passed them out to anybody who happened to walk by, and some of the other unions in town joined us too. The AFL-CIO did, and I think some of the Teamsters were there too. Some UAW members. We’d walk around the block and people would honk their horns. It probably accomplished absolutely nothing, but it felt good to do.
It's hard not to notice how much the paper dissolved in the time since the dissolution of the union.
Oh my god, it's absolutely atrocious. That was Gannett’s plan all along. They never saw the internet supplanting them or anything, and their whole strategy was to cut costs. Their path to profits was cutting and you can't cut yourself to greatness. It just doesn’t happen. They were thinking that people wouldn't notice what was in the paper. That they could fill it with filler and people would still subscribe, and the advertisers would still advertise. It was a cash cow for a long time. One of the big things that killed it was Craigslist. Classified ads plummeted to nothing.
What did you think when I first got a union job? Did it strike you as surprising?
It was great. I was glad. And I'm glad that you’re so enthusiastic about it.
What do you think about what seems to be happening more broadly with the labor movement? We talked about the Amazon union recently and what a pleasant shock that victory was.
Well, you know, the way it's always worked in this country is that the pendulum swings. It swings toward unions, and everybody's in the union. And then there are some abuses. There’s fraud and theft and corruption. People get a little fed up and then start swimming the other way away from the unions toward management. And then people get fed up because, you know, anybody who thinks that a company's gonna be benevolent, they're dreaming, you know? Maybe if you work for a little family organization, that can happen. But a corporation's not gonna be lenient or generous to its employees. Or if they are, it’s only because it’s somehow gonna help them. They're gonna squeeze and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze. And that's been proven.
I understand why we don’t like, teach little kids to distrust employers, but I wish that idea was more ingrained in people as a societal truth or something. The idea that your boss and your company are not your friends and are not looking out for you. It seems like it should be more understood as a fact
Yeah, I don’t know. Has there ever been a time in history when that was true? I don't think so. I mean, look at poor old Bob Cratchit.
Yeah. I mean, I guess it’s the American PR machine.
And you know, you go for an interview and they're nice. And then they hire you and say, “We’re so glad to have you here on board,” and all that. It fools people into thinking that there's some kind of benevolent relationship.
And I guess people are also just scared and they want to protect themselves. That’s what I’ve observed anyway. During stressful union efforts when people are resistant, they’re often worried about themselves, and often with understandable reasons. They’re afraid of being fired or retaliated against. That fear is really powerful.
Right. But there's power in numbers too, and that's the thing. If you can walk out and shut the company down, you're in good shape. You know, as I said before, even if we could have gone on strike, Gannett could easily bring in 35 or 40 editorial employees to run the paper. If you could do reporting in one paper, you could do it in another paper. And that's exactly what they would do. And then what? You could get fired.
You were talking about the pendulum swing earlier. Do you think that what's happening now is just another pendulum swing or does it feel any different to you?
You know, I don't know. I've only seen one swing in my lifetime. I don't know how far it's gonna go toward unions this time, but I think people have gotten to the point where they're fed up. And you know, this gig economy, it’s a hard way to live. You need a little security in your life. Especially when you've got kids to support, a wife or husband, house payments to make. Sometimes you might be willing to give up a little bit of individuality for that security. It’s a trade-off.
Yeah. I mean, I still can't believe that those Amazon employees were able to do what they did.
I know. And that one guy in particular.
Yeah, Chris Smalls.
I think every time that happens, other employees take notice and think, “Maybe we could do that.”
That's what I hope.
It takes a leader. An organizer. And hard work. It’s really hard work.
I think about this a lot. How, as a digital media worker, I feel like we have a lot of advantages for trying to get momentum. We’re professional communicators and we have the internet now as a channel for that, and we have platforms. And for workers in different fields, people at Amazon or Starbucks, the tools they have to get people motivated and communicate are more limited in a lot of ways. It’s hard for anyone to organize, but when they succeed, it's that much more impressive to me.
Yeah, you know, when I first got to Lansing, I bet there were more union people than non-union people.
Really? You think?
Well I don’t know for sure, but we had Oldsmobile and state government employees, and they were all unionized. And the Michigan State University union. So yeah, I’d think that non-union people might’ve been in the minority. I don't have anything to back that up. Just my sense. And you know, we dealt with other union people too, and in fact, we took some trips to Detroit when the UAW was on strike. We loaded up a couple of cars and we picketed the plant where grandpa worked [for Ford], the Sterling plant. They came to us to help us, so we figured we had to go and help them.
You know what I just realized? You said you started at the paper in ‘77, the union disbanded in ‘97, and I think my first union got its first contract in 2016. Not exactly perfectly spaced, but it’s interesting how that happened over the course of about 40 years.
Ah interesting, yeah. Well, that's good. That's encouraging. For a while there it looked to me like the union movement was dead in the water. Remember when Reagan told the air traffic controllers to go back to work?
I mean, no, but yes.
He actually broke their strike.
God, what a shithead.
I know. Yeah.
It’d be nice to have a strong pro-union president. Biden has been gently pro-union, but it'd be much better if we had a president who was really loud about it.
Yeah. He's got so many other balls in the air right now, but that's true. It’s not high up there, but it should be, because without unions there's no middle class. I think that's a fact.
I think the UAW can be credited to a large extent with creating the middle class, I really do.
Well and that goes along with what you were saying about the pendulum swinging. The middle class is disappearing.
I know. I hope we can regroup. Because there's no democracy without a middle class. And there's no middle class without unions. What’s more democratic than a union? There’s no democracy without unions.
Amen. Okay, one more question. Any good birds you've been into lately?
Yeah. Maybe you've written about it already, actually. The indigo bunting.
Let me Google it. The name sounds familiar.
Oh man. The color. Well maybe you've heard of it from me, but I've never seen such colors in a Michigan bird.
Wow yeah, it’s beautiful. I’m looking at photos now.
We get ‘em at the house sometimes. They’re tiny.
What a cool-looking bird.
Oh! We had some real drama at our house involving birds recently.
These doves built a nest in our pergola. Normally it's the robins who do it, but this time it was doves and, you know, males and females both build the nest and take care of the eggs and bring in the food when the chicks hatch. So they seemed to be doing okay, but last time we came home and there was a hawk on the deck, dead.
Stomach ripped open. And the nest that the birds had been in was destroyed. There was a bunch of feathers around, and no signs of anything else. So here's my theory: the hawk tried to get to the eggs or to the chicks and the doves were defending the nest, and while the hawk destroyed the nest, the doves killed the hawk.
Wait a second. Can doves kill a hawk?
Oh, yeah, they have beaks. They have claws. I mean, it would've taken a while. The other possibility is that they killed the hawk and didn't necessarily rip its intestines open, but then something else came on the deck. That's another possibility.
So do you think the doves made it in the end?
We can only hope. Let's say they did.
Did you have to take care of the hawk?
Yeah. Just picked it up and threw it into the woods. I mean, they’re not edible.
Hawks are pretty hardcore. It's hard to imagine something taking it down.
Yeah, I know, but something killed it. I don't know for sure if the doves did it.
Yeah hmm, I guess if something like a coyote killed it, it probably would've eaten it.
Right, or done more to it. I’d think that anything that would want to cut it open would want to eat it.
Exactly. How strange. I assume you didn't take any photos of that.
No, it was pretty gross.
And don’t forget these are mourning doves, not turtle doves.
Right. They're not white, right?
No, they're grayish. They made that sound. [Makes mourning dove sound.]
That’s gonna be tough to transcribe. Thanks for talking, Dad.
Sure thing, daughter.